Addressing some FUD on open vs. closed tech

Gate keepers

It’s a little early and so I may regret posting this, but I will do so anyway.

The Verge today is carrying a piece by Walt Mossberg that argues nothing is really open or really closed so, meh, don’t worry about it y’all ok? Because AppleGoogleMicroplex has your back.

His premise is that the debate between open and closed involves a false dichotomy because the terminology is fuzzy. I’m pretty sure Walt is smarter than that. I have a hard time interpreting this premise as anything but plain old FUD.

For quite some time now, operationally valid and accepted definitions of “open source software” and “free and open source software” have existed. There’s no fuzziness in the terminology—if you understand the terminology. People involved in open source software have different motivations and philosophies for doing what they do, and this have led to different licenses that confer different rights and responsibilities to the licensee. They essentially break down into two camps: restrictive open source, where you must share all of your code modifications and derivations, and permissive open source, where you don’t have to share anything (but you might be required to attribute the original source with a copyright notice or similar). Both permit use in commercial projects.

Supporters of restrictive open source often strive for platforms that are fully open. Many powerful voices in FOSS today advocate for a computing and technological ecology where the user (the owner) has full and complete access to everything the device can do. They advocate that everything the device can do be documented completely in published, independently buildable and vettable source code and that the user (owner) should she wish be able to change any aspect of what the device can do to fit her needs or desires.

In the realm of communication devices, many advocates (myself included) feel that open access to software needs to extend to the radio units, GPS units, etc. And someĀ (myself included) feel that hardware designs should be open source as well.

Thus there is no fuzziness in what people who engage with software development and those involved open source software movements mean by “open”. There is some fuzziness in application because those who advocate for completely open platforms are constrained by the products that are actually available (which are often built by those who use “open” tools only as leverage in their closed operations).

The other source of fuzziness is the straw-man FUD injected into consumers’ minds by articles like Mossberg’s.

“Open” can have several levels of completeness. However, there is nothing open about a house you buy that gives you access to only one or two rooms and lets you decorate them using only pre-approved designs that come out of an approved catalog. Confusing that with anything resembling “open” is the a serious bastardization of the concept.

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